The problem with Thomas Moran

Here’s the problem with Thomas Moran: he was a white nationalist.

For starters.

Through his paintings, he promoted the notion of an American West of, by and for white people.


Secondly, his realist landscapes were purposefully dishonest. And not in the, “he moved a mountain peak to improve the composition” kind of way.

Moran willfully misled audiences and misrepresented the truth of what he saw to suit the propaganda of railroad and mining companies – he hid abuses done to the land by these industrialists. The land his paintings were glorifying.

Thirdly, his work aided and abetted erasure of the Indigenous inhabitants of what became the American West.

With another exhibition of Thomas Moran’s undeniably beautiful Western landscape paintings opening, this one at the National Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY, Moran’s white nationalism, racism and his artistic lies are important to detail along with his artistic brilliance.

Thomas Moran, England, 1837–1926, Hot Springs of Gardiner's River, Yellowstone Park, 1871. Watercolor and graphite on paper. 9 78 x 13 inches. On loan from the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center.
Thomas Moran, England, 1837–1926, Hot Springs of Gardiner’s River, Yellowstone Park, 1871. Watercolor and graphite on paper. 9 78 x 13 inches. On loan from the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center.

And there’s no mistaking that.

He may be America’s greatest landscape painter. His artworks fill museums in the West and throughout the nation. A Christie’s auction in May 2022 features numerous of his paintings, all priced mid-six figures to well over $1 million.

My criticism has nothing to do with his artistry. My criticism asks his admirers – of which I once considered myself – and the museum’s exalting his work, not to hide the truth about the artist the way the artist hid the truth about what he painted.

Follow the example set by the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth. Following its acquisition of a lost watercolor by Moran, Mount Superior, as viewed from Alta, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah (ca. 1879), it staged an exhibition around the painting and related works.

The presentation explained how Moran manipulated his landscapes. How he removed the ugliness of mining pits and the squalid towns they birthed from his paintings of Utah. His idyllic paintings of untrammeled, unpeopled cathedrals of nature were manipulations promoting Western tourism via rail.


Many of the scenes he depicted as realism no longer existed the way he observed them. He painted fantasies of the peaceful, wild, Western beauty he imagined, but never saw. Moran’s “realism” obscured reality.

He added Native Americans to his landscapes for romantic effect where he never personally observed them and removed them from other paintings where they belonged.

This is cultural erasure.

Moran cared little about the Indigenous people he depicted in his paintings. They were props. Less important than the canyons and waterfalls.

Perhaps the greatest example of Moran’s racism toward Native Americans comes from my hometown museum, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, FL, where a monumental Moran painting depicts Spanish colonizer Juan Ponce de León meeting with what would have been the Timucua people upon arriving in the “new world” near present day St. Augustine, FL.

Thomas Moran, Ponce de Leon in Florida, 1877-1878, detail Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
Thomas Moran, Ponce de Leon in Florida, 1877-1878, detail Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens

Moran painted this imaginary scene featuring the Indigenous people of northeast Florida in the regalia of the Plains and Western Indians. While Moran did visit Florida, the Timucua were long gone by the time he came through. Instead of giving any thought to how Indigenous people there would live or dress – or researching it – he just substituted the Plains Indians he had observed “out West.” He paints the Timucua wearing large feather headdresses, not stopping to consider how absurd the idea of walking through the thick Florida brush in the tall, flowing garment would be.

Wall text at the Cummer calls this out.

The Timucua in Moran’s painting are accessories to the Spanish colonizers. The Spanish are the heroes, the Natives are the extras.

This painting is further dishonest in its representation of the Spanish as peaceful and magnanimous, omitting any suggestion of the violence, forced labor and Catholic proselytizing they visited upon the area’s inhabitants.

Yellowstone National Park at 150

“Scenes of Transcendent Beauty: Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone” at the National Museum of Wildlife Art continues promoting another Western and American white nationalist pursuit which Moran helped spread: the National Parks. Yellowstone in particular.

When Moran first visited the area which would become Yellowstone National Park, the year was 1871. Treaties had largely removed the once numerous Indigenous people from this ancestral homeland.

Upon seeing Yellowstone with his own eyes, Moran and his fellow explorers on the expedition struggled to describe the breathtaking scenes of “transcendent beauty.” This phrase comes directly from Moran’s own writings and serves as inspiration for the exhibit. 

“The earlier descriptions of Yellowstone sounded like science fiction to anyone who lived in the east,” Tammi Hanawalt, Curator of Art at NMWA, says in a press release promoting the show. “By Moran returning from Yellowstone with his sketches and paintings, he made it real and helped people realize Yellowstone was a truly unique place that needed to be protected.” 

Of course, anyone back east could have just asked a Native person about the area. They didn’t need convincing that it was special. America, however, needed to hear it from a white person.

Thomas Moran England, 1837–1926, Springs on the Border of Yellowstone Lake, 1871. Watercolor and graphite on paper. 10 78 x 5 116 inches. On loan from the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center.
Thomas Moran England, 1837–1926, Springs on the Border of Yellowstone Lake, 1871. Watercolor and graphite on paper. 10 78 x 5 116 inches. On loan from the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center.

By the time President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law on March 1, 1872, creating the park, Native people were nearly devoid from its 2.2-million-acre boundary, a development Moran would have surely applauded.

One band of Shoshone, the Tukudika, or Sheep Eaters, year-round residents, hung on in small numbers 10-plus years after the park’s formation.

As a result, what many refer to as “America’s Greatest Idea,” the National Parks, many Native people consider a “crime scene.” David Treuer, an Ojibwe author and historian, says the American West, “began with war but concluded with parks.

Others consider America’s National Parks as sites of ethnic cleansing.

Evidence supporting that position proves difficult to deny.

Miwok massacred at Yosemite.

Blackfeet pushed out at Glacier. Seminoles removed from Everglades.

I can find no mention of this history, or Moran’s white nationalism, or how his paintings supported Native erasure, in materials promoting “Scenes of Transcendent Beauty.” Moran’s watercolor field sketches from the expedition on view in the show don’t include any reference of Indigenous people.

While those materials and paintings are filled with notions of Yellowstone’s beauty and grandeur and majesty, what about robbery and massacre and genocide?

Increasingly, when I look at America’s National Parks, that’s what I see.

I also see Indigenous people. Efforts are being made in that direction.

As Yellowstone National Park – the nation’s first – celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, the park system is back in the spotlight. No less august a figure than Barak Obama narrates a new Netflix feature on the parks.

There is a place in art history and museums for Thomas Moran paintings in the same way there is a place in art history and museums for Paul Gauguin paintings. Gauguin was a child molester.

But that place need be accompanied by a frank and candid accounting of the artist’s views and actions – which were largely shared by white Americans at the time – and the impact of his work – warts and all.

What do you think?

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  • Todd
    September 18, 2022

    The Marias Massacre was not “at” Yellowstone. It took place over 250 miles to the north.

    In the 38 days that Moran and the Hayden Expedition spent in Yellowstone in 1871, they encountered no Indigenous people. Therefore, including Indigenous people in the paintings you use to illustrate this article would have been, according to your definition, “Native erasure.” And not including them, apparently, is also “Native erasure.”

    What’s more, the paintings you use as illustrations are accurate to life: they are not “willfully dishonest.” They are not mere “propaganda.” They are not diagnostic of white nationalism. You make no attempt to understand what it meant to be an individual within the rapacious white culture in the late 19th century. There was blood on everyone’s hands– just as there is today, as we drive the climate into self-combustion mode. Let us hope that the generations to come make a more sincere attempt to view us in the context of our time; that is, in all our limitations.

    For all the righteous indignation in this article it does not deepen the conversation– quite the opposite. You don’t have the facts straight. Your arguments are baffled. In your eagerness to prove your relevance to the current discourse you are cheapening these concepts and turning them into catchwords.

    • Chadd Scott
      September 18, 2022

      Ah yes, “the context of our time” defense. Racists love “the context of our time” defense. Slavery was just a result of “the context of our time.” Indian genocide “the context of our time.” Everybody else was doing it…
      White people love the “context of our time” explanation for racial violence because it absolves any one person from individual responsibility, shifting blame to everyone, society, “our time.” People weren’t at fault, it was “the time.” It’s the same lie as “blood was on everyone’s hands.” No, it wasn’t.
      Slave holders kept people in bondage, they obliterated families, they raped women, but the abolitionist movement occurred during this same era, was abolition not also “the context of our time?” Why do we choose to defend slavers by claiming slavery was “the context of our time” instead of highlighting them as evil and defaulting to abolitionism was “the context of our time?”
      Everyone in this era wasn’t evil despite what you’d like to believe to alleviate your white guilt at this country’s founding on slave labor and stolen land. Those actions can’t be absolved as “the context of our time” any more than claiming Nazi prison guards were “just following orders.” Another favorite for whitewashing evil. People made choices to be barbarous, certain people, not all people. History should hold them accountable.
      I proudly make no attempt to sympathize with the dominant white culture’s abuse of minorities, then or now, because it was evil then, it is evil now, and it always will be evil. Your sympathy for and “understanding” of the white power mindset tells on you.
      Moran’s paintings are willfully dishonest, propaganda and in support of white nationalism as I make clear in the story through numerous specific examples.
      Forget deepening this conversation, I want to start this conversation in American art history, that’s the point in calling out the Wildlife Museum’s total failure to recognize Moran’s white nationalist motivations in its exhibition. I’m helping raise the topic that too many museums, collectors and auction houses continue choosing to ignore, like you, pretending racism, genocide and promotion of Manifest Destiney in the 19th century were “understandable” because they were “the context of the time.”

      • AaronS
        August 2, 2023

        Chadd, with respect, “the context of time” is absolutely essential. Your grandparents almost certainly had a very different view of gay marriage than many today hold. Were they evil? Of course not! They acted within what they knew and believed. We cannot ask anyone to divine what values will be like a century from now, then judge them if they didn’t get it right.

        Slavery was about the worst thing America has ever done. But, well, it was not a settled issue for everyone. Is it possible that there were otherwise decent men who owned slaves? Of course! That doesn’t excuse the evil ones. Nor does that mean that slavery is therefore acceptable. It simply means that if they were acting according to the light they had…THAT’S ALL ANYONE CAN BE ASKED TO DO.

        Let me give you a very dark example. Let’s say that I come from the future back to your time. I tell you that it is ESSENTIAL that you kill your child, otherwise 8 billion people will die as a direct result of your child living to the age of 18. (Like I said, that’s a dark example, but I think it will support the point.) Of course, you rightly refuse (as would I). But then fast forward to the time I came from. You find that, indeed, 8 billion people have perished.

        So…are you evil? Are you to be despised?

        I don’t think so. You can only act according to what light you have. And some people don’t have much at all.

        Moran operated, no doubt, on the remnants of Manifest Destiny. If you had asked him if he was trying to have Native Americans eradicated or the such, I”m sure he would have told you no. And while I’m not sure at all that your interpretation of Moran is acceptable, EVEN IF I GRANT THAT IT HAD A NEGATIVE EFFECT, that does not mean that Moran’s heart was in the wrong place. It’s not like he set out to promote white propaganda. In those day, even quite progressive whites still felt themselves superior to others.

        • Chadd Scott
          August 5, 2023

          Good and evil are not moving targets. They are fixed. Slavery and the rape, torture and destruction of families which always accompany it were and will always be wrong, always evil. There were no “good men” who owned slaves. Zero. Not Washington, not Jefferson, none.
          You conveniently forget there were plenty of Abolitionists during the Founding era and after, plenty of people who could recognize slavery as evil. The slavers chose to continue the practice despite its barbarity.
          Similarly, genocide is always wrong. By your rationale, the Holocaust should be forgiven because, at the time, that was the popular practice in Germany and that’s just the way people thought. There were no “good” guards at Dachau. They were all evil. Some more zealous than others, some more cruel than others, but all evil.
          There can be no rationalization.
          Moran should be condemned for his erasure of Native cultures in his artwork because the thinking was debased and cruel, despite that being populist thought in America at the time.

  • Constanza Solórzano
    September 8, 2023

    Chadd, your vision and contextualization is very clarifying and helpful. Thank you so much! it helped me a lot to give context and understand things that i was suspecting, the violent relationship between images and colonialist purpuses.